[SXSW Review] "What We Do in the Shadows" Premiere Episode Sinks in its Teeth and Draws Big Laughs! - Bloody Disgusting
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[SXSW Review] “What We Do in the Shadows” Premiere Episode Sinks in its Teeth and Draws Big Laughs!

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What We Do in the Shadow’s pilot introduces you to Staten Island’s most neurotic vampires and hilariously sets the table for something great.

“The problem with living with vampires is the vampires that I’ve chosen to stay with…”

Horror comedies have become increasingly plentiful in recent years and they’ve even hit a saturation point in some respects (in one year we’ve gone from having both Ash vs. Evil Dead and Stan Against Evil celebrating a third season and now neither is on the air). However, one horror-comedy hybrid films that’s maintained a near sterling reputation through the years is Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s vampire mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows. Beyond it and Shaun of the Dead, few other blends of horror and comedy have been so unanimously loved in the film industry. After a few years, Waititi and Clement have bravely decided to take this rich world and expand it for television. In fact, What We Do in the Shadows experienced its first spin-off in New Zealand last year, Wellington Paranormal. Wellington Paranormal is much more in line with COPS and looks at inept humans in a world of paranormal creatures, rather than how What We Do in the Shadows spends time with the ordinary extraordinary. Both of these shows serve different purposes and they both do so very well, but because What We Do in the Shadows actually stars the monsters, it’s likely to be the more popular of the two series in this universe. The first episode of What We Do in the Shadows may be a patient, minimalist premiere, but it’s still an exciting entry point into this world.

“Pilot” keeps the plot simple and doesn’t overcomplicate things, but instead lets its characters breathe and progressively immerse the audience in this unique world. It’s a smart approach in general, but especially so for the show’s premiere, which never overwhelms the viewer in terms of how much it throws at them. This first episode largely just lets the audience get to know this eccentric cast of vampires. Each character offers a tease of their illustrious pasts that become a whole lot more depressing in retrospect since they’re all presently living together in Staten Island. Among these unusual tenants is Nandor (Kayvan Novak) who’s all about rules, order, and seems to be the most uptight of these characters. Frequently at Nandor’s side is Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), who’s his human servant and glorified slave. Guillermo has been working for Nandor for a decade and desperately wants to be turned into a vampire, but is constantly disrespected and ignored. It’s a refreshing take on the idea of the unrequited lover and Guillen helps Guillermo properly tow that line between endearing and pathetic.

Matt Barry’s Laszlo is basically the opposite of Nandor and is the freewheeling type who couldn’t care less about life’s consequences. Any role that Matt Berry takes on turns into pure gold and that’s no exception here. While it’s a shame that heavy hitters from the film, like Jemaine Clement or Rhys Darby, aren’t apart of the show’s cast, but Berry easily helps fill this void. We’re seriously lucky to get him as a main cast member on a weekly series. He’s an early standout in this cast and with any luck he’ll also eventually pen an episode.

Berry’s Laszlo comes across well in this installment, but it’s Mark Proksch’s Colin that really steals the show here. This is a character that’s a social outcast and everybody hates not only because is he annoying, but because he can also sap the strength of other vampires. Colin is a psychic emotional vampire who sucks the energy out of everyone when he enters a room simply by talking to them or enraging people with some annoying habit. If you’ve ever felt that way before, psychic vampires like Colin are the reason why. The film What We Do in the Shadows does a fantastic job exploring different archetypes of vampires, but this series still finds room for fun, modern additions to the canon, like Colin. It also doesn’t hurt that Colin is played by the underrated Mark Proksch, who’s the perfect actor for this kind of role. Colin is used sparsely here, but he’s arguably the strongest character in the show’s pilot.

The cast gets rounded out with Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), who helps provide the feminine vampire perspective. She appears to be the levelheaded voice of reason in many respects. Nadja’s also caught up in a curious running storyline where she believes that her past lover is reincarnated in a normal human, which will surely be a fun well to return to throughout the season. All of these cast members effectively sell these bizarre characters, but they also gel together as a group, which is a pretty crucial aspect of this series.

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This series maintains that documentary, cinema verité aesthetic that was present in the What We Do in the Shadows film (“pretend that they’re not there,” one vampire remarks about the cameras. “It’s meant to be a natural piece”). Taika Waititi directs this pilot to help usher in the same visual style that he brought forward in his 2014 film, but it’s such a treat to have him behind the camera here (although all of the directors and writers for the show’s season are seriously impressive). Characters sheepishly explain to a handheld camera and through talking heads what the roles of various vampires are and how they feel about things. I personally feel like it’d have been an injustice to strip this series of the documentary-style approach and the series still finds ways to get inventive and make this device feel fresh. It’s easy to say that this feels like a supernatural take on The Office, but it’s a lot more akin to a horror-fueled version of The Real World due to how these different vampires are all housed up together. That is such a deliciously fun idea that it’s hard to not fall in love with it.

Much like in the film, this series effortlessly juxtaposes deadly monsters—specifically vampires—with mundane idiosyncrasies. The undead squabble over house chores and hygiene while they debate the best way to dispose of corpses. It’s a trope that can be a disaster when it’s done poorly, but Jemaine Clement’s script for “Pilot” finds the right tone and highlights how to effectively do it. This is a very funny first episode and most of the installment is deeply quotable. However, some of the sight gags, like when Nandor and Laszlo’s argument turns airborne are just brilliant and a good example of why a comedy of this nature is important. There are some fantastic gore jokes throughout this first episode, too.

The series might feature references to the feature film’s universe, but this isn’t a situation where the film version of What We Do in the Shadows is mandatory viewing in order to make sense of this show (although you should see it, if you haven’t). This very much stands on its own, which is certainly a smart decision. That being said, this series also proudly carries on the film’s name and doesn’t tarnish its reputation, if there were any concerns on that front. In fact, this series helps expand the film’s world in new, exciting ways.

“Pilot” is largely character-centric, but the main driving force behind this episode is that the vampires’ master from the Old Country, the Baron, comes to visit them in their Staten Island home. This prompts plenty of panic as the New York vampires attempt to put together a blood feast for their special visitor. They want to make this all feel particularly important, so virgin’s blood becomes the big ingredient for this shindig. Minor complications are reached during this time of preparation, but the episode’s story stays reasonably on point, as everyone gets ready for the Baron’s arrival.

What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t suffer from any shortage of laughs. There is some very clever wordplay here that’s purely specific to a show like this, such as how someone being “drunk” can refer to both an abuse of alcohol or a vampire draining their life force. The flagrant abuse of the incredible, supernatural powers that these vampires have is also consistently entertaining. Vampire histrionics get used in a neurotic way, like casually hypnotizing one or another to win an argument or turning into a bat to escape conflict, which become a great source of humor. All of this works so well because of the characters themselves and their chemistry from spending hundreds of years together.

What We Do in the Shadow’s “Pilot” does absolutely everything that a series premiere should. It brilliantly introduces a vibrant world and a cast of characters that you instantly want to spend more time with. As fun as this first episode is, hopefully, future installments will tackle a little more in terms of plot. It’s worth noting that a much grander storyline that hints at the season’s larger arc does get teased towards the end of the episode. It’s nice that this first episode takes things slow, but with such an extreme world and creative storytellers here, this is a show that could tell highly complex stories that riff on the lore of vampires and the horror genre. There’s a lot of potential with this series and hopefully What We Do in the Shadows isn’t afraid to take risks and reach for more rather than hanging out with what it knows is safe and works.

What We Do in the Shadows premieres on FX on March 27th at 10pm (ET)

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Daniel Kurland is a freelance writer, comedian, and critic, whose work can be read on Splitsider, Bloody Disgusting, Den of Geek, ScreenRant, and across the Internet. Daniel knows that "Psycho II" is better than the original and that the last season of "The X-Files" doesn't deserve the bile that it conjures. If you want a drink thrown in your face, talk to him about "Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II," but he'll always happily talk about the "Puppet Master" franchise. The owls are not what they seem.


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